Reagan’s Rhetoric and the Berlin Wall
In 1987, although the tensions of the Cold War were easing, one significant point of contention persevered: The Berlin Wall. This barrier surrounded West German, separating it from Soviet East Germany. In his “Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin” on June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan first portrayed the wall as a device through which the Soviet Union inflicted suffering on free West Germany. He then changed his rhetoric to represent the wall as a scar on the body of Germany. Lastly, he described it simply as a wall; a structure that could easily be torn down if enough individuals were willing. Through the progression of imagery he used, President Reagan attempted to decrease the power the wall held over the German people.
Reagan began his imagery by depicting the Berlin Wall as “an instrument” used to subject “ordinary men and women [to] the will of a totalitarian state.” The use of the term “instrument” implies a tool used with intelligence and purpose. The barrier was a scalpel in the hands of the Soviet Union, and those hands were not kind. They were “cutting across [the] city,” destroying, and butchering. Reagan wanted to truly show the “brutal” nature of the Soviet Union in building such a barricade; they mutilated and “gutted” the city of Berlin. The Soviet Union intended for the wall to separate the highly advanced East Germany from what they saw as inferior West Germany. However, as West Berlin rebuilt both politically and economically, the Communist world fell further behind, leaving the wall to achieve nothing but “the pain of division.”
Reagan’s next point in his rhetorical progression illustrated the division as an injury upon the body of Germany. He indicated that the “gash of barbed wire, concrete, dog runs, and guardtowers” was disfiguring for Germany. Instead of becoming a prosperous city and a prosperous country, they were distracted by the “scar of a wall” that was “permitted” to exist on Germany. Reagan decried that so many be “forced to look upon a scar,” and lambasted the Soviet Union for turning Germany into a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts. Besides portraying the wall as a deformity, the application of scarring as rhetoric attempted to elicit two positive interpretations. First, it implied that Germany was not a skeleton; it was still a living country. Because it was alive, it could recover from the horrible conditions it had been subjected to. Second, common knowledge suggests that scars fade with time, and therefore it implied that if the Berlin Wall was to fall, Germans could overcome their past and move forward, allowing the scar to fade behind them.
Finally, Reagan attempted to delegitimize the wall. He gradually changed his rhetoric, no longer giving the wall imagery, pulling back the curtain, and unveiling it to be only a man-made structure. He reduced the name from something vivid such as “scar” or “gash” to simply “the wall.” He presented it as something not to be feared by mentioning that he “noticed words crudely spray-painted upon the wall, perhaps by a young Berliner.” He put forth the idea that even children, society’s smallest and weakest members, were able to defy the power of the wall. He depicted the people as more powerful than the wall because “the city [thrived] in spite of the challenges implicit in the very presence of [the] wall.” He ended his attempt at weakening the power of the wall and building the power of the people with repetition of the imageless and discrediting phrase “the wall”: “Yes, across Europe, this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.” By doing this, he highlighted everything that the wall dividing Germany was not. He highlighted everything it could not do. He took power from the wall and gave it to the German and European people and the faith, truth, and freedom that they could unite behind.
The Berlin Wall was a representative of the tensions of the Cold War and the uncompleted aspects of World War II. By rhetorically suggesting that the Berlin Wall need not be an implement of suffering or even a permanent scar, and instead is simply a wall, Reagan attempted to alleviate the strain that occurred between Soviet Eastern German and free Western Germany. Through his use of imagery, he sought not to downplay the importance of the wall, but to decrease the power it held over the people of both East and West Germany. He urged them to unite against tyranny as an alternative to fighting against each other, and he urged them to “tear down this wall.” Instead of bringing about World War III with his inflammatory suggestions, as many pundits and advisors predicted he would, Reagan was able to bring together bitter enemies who jointly would bring down the wall within two years.